A detailed look at the key players to watch for the Atlanta Falcons and the Kansas City Chiefs’ keys to victory leading up to their Week 13 game at noon Sunday at the Georgia Dome. The game will air on CBS (Ch. 4 in Kansas City).
[ Also be sure to watch Terez Paylor's video preview of the game or listen our Chiefs-Falcons matchup podcast. Subscribe to SportsBeat KC on iTunes for more KC sports talk from The Star. ]
Coach: Dan Quinn (14-12) is in his second year as an NFL head coach, both with the Falcons, who are coming off a 38-19 win over the Arizona Cardinals. Quinn, 46, is a longtime defensive line coach who spent the 2013 and 2014 seasons as the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive coordinator under Pete Carroll. In his final season in Seattle, Quinn helped guide the Seahawks’ defense to a Super Bowl title.
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Offense: Kyle Shanahan, 36, is in his second year as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator and his ninth overall as an NFL offensive coordinator. He is the son of Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Shanahan. The Falcons rank third in the league in total offense, third in passing and 15th in rushing. The Falcons have passed approximately 55 percent of the time and have called shotgun formations on 37 percent of their offensive plays and use a lot of misdirection, stretch zone and play-action. They spread it around pretty good, too, as 11 Falcons have scored a touchdown — most of any team in the league.
Defense: Richard Smith, 61, is in his second year as Quinn’s defensive coordinator and his sixth overall as a NFL defensive coordinator. The Falcons currently rank 32nd in passing defense and 10th in rushing defense. The Falcons rank 15th in the NFL with 24 sacks and 22nd in turnovers forced with 12. They play a very simple defense, with only a few zone coverages, but they’ve stocked it with fast, athletic young players in the mold of the Seahawks. They blitz an average amount, but they will run a lot of stunts up front.
Special teams: Keith Armstrong, 52, is in his ninth year as the Falcons’ special teams coach and 20th overall as a NFL special teams coach. Kicker Matt Bryant has converted 92 percent of his field-goal attempts, which ranks fifth in the league. Punter Matt Bosher has dropped 14 punts inside the 20, which ranks 27th. The Falcons’ coverage units rank 14th in kicks and 23rd in punts, which means explosive Chiefs rookie Tyreek Hill could find some room to work Sunday. The Falcons haven’t returned a kick or punt for a score this year, but Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub is wary of returner Eric Weems, a do-it-all dynamo who is also a playmaker as a cover player. “I know what kind of guy he is,” said Toub, who coached him in Chicago during 2007-11. “We have our hands full with him; he has great courage.” Weems hits it north and south as a returner and is a slippery cover player who has a knack for making plays.
Four keys to a Chiefs victory
1. Open up the playbook
First of all, you can run on these guys. Philadelphia did it two weeks ago, and the Falcons defensive line has even turned to a backup center (Ben Garland) at times to improve a shaky run defense. The inside linebackers are fast but young, and the Falcons will also miss some tackles — 85, the fifth-most in the league, according to Pro Football Focus — so the opportunity for some big plays will be there. This is also a team you can throw on, even though the ends, led by emerging youngster Vic Beasley, Jr., and veteran Dwight Freeney, have some pass-rush juice. Arizona came out throwing a week ago, with plenty of play-action, and scored a touchdown on their first drive, and the Falcons’ defense has surrendered some big plays in their zone scheme this season.
2. Capitalize in the red zone
Field goals probably won’t cut it in this game: The Falcons boast one of the league’s most explosive offenses, as they rank first in points scored. Although the Chiefs rank 31st in red-zone efficiency, the Falcons rank dead last in red-zone defense, which if there was ever a week the Chiefs would finally shake their red-zone woes, it’s this one. Throw in the fact that the secondary is not particularly fearsome without Pro Bowl corner Desmond Trufant, who is out for the season because of a pectoral injury, and Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Co. could have a big day if the Chiefs can get the running game going with Spencer Ware and quarterback Alex Smith taking some shots downfield against a somewhat vulnerable group.
3. Protect against the deep ball
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is having an MVP season. Not only completing lots of passes, he’s throwing downfield, too. Star receiver Julio Jones is having a fantastic season, averaging 17.5 yards per catch, fifth in the league. He generally lines up on the left side of the formation, which means he’ll avoid Marcus Peters, unless the Chiefs suddenly decide to change their tendencies. That should allow the Chiefs to plan accordingly; stopping Jones requires regular bracket coverage, or at the very least, a deep safety over the top. Jones isn’t the only one who needs to be accounted for. Taylor Gabriel is a speed merchant with supreme shake who can burn you deep, 47-yard score vs. Green Bay, or rack up yards after the catch, two touchdowns vs. Cardinals. The Cardinals had success running some stunts and five-man blitzes against the Falcons, so with the Chiefs’ entire starting interior defensive line potentially out this week because of injury, Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton could have the opportunity to dial up some creative stuff while leaving plenty of players in off coverage, which could be a necessity against an offense that regularly feasts on man coverage by peppering the middle with passes. “One of the strengths of their offense is that they have a lot of weapons, and they use them all,” Sutton said.
4. Corral the play-action and boot game
The Falcons have utilized play-action on 25 percent of their offensive plays (according to Football Outsiders), which is the highest percentage in football. They are also averaging 9.8 yards per play on play-action, which ranks third. The Chiefs cannot allow the Falcons to get rolling here. Arizona had some success blitzing safeties off the edge to corral the Falcons’ boot game, which led to a few sacks. The backside ends also had some success by taking a beeline to Ryan instead of crashing down on stretch runs, which also allowed them to generate pressure when Ryan did keep the ball. If the Chiefs’ linebackers can continually maintain their gap integrity, especially on the backside of the Falcons’ zone running plays, it will give them an opportunity to harass Ryan on play-action boots.
Four Falcons to watch
No. 2, QB Matt Ryan, 31 years old, 6-4, 217, ninth season
Ryan has come into this own this season, completing an absurd 68.9 percent of his passes for 3,516 yards, 26 touchdowns and six interceptions. Has good arm talent; throws a pretty deep ball and can make all the throws. Decent athlete who lacks wiggle but can move a bit once he’s got a head of steam. Can throw with accuracy on the move. Flashes the ability to throw with accuracy under pressure. Will occasionally stare down Jones and try to gun it into tight spots. Ryan generally has a decent amount of time to throw, but is only 20th in average air distances per throw at 19.5 yards, which means he’ll pepper you with short passes. He did that last week against the Cardinals; 29 of his 34 attempts were 9 yards or shorter, according to Pro Football Focus. Sutton is wary of both Ryan and the Falcons’ running game. “The balance they have in rushing the ball and throwing the ball is a hard choice,” Sutton said. “They can beat you in either one of them.”
No. 11, WR Julio Jones, 27 years old, 6-3, 220, sixth season
Ranked No. 8 on the NFL’s Top 100 for 2016. Has racked up 65 catches for 1,140 yards and five touchdowns this season. Generally lines up on the left side of the formation but will also work the right side and the slot, where he can be extra dangerous with a two-way go. Good route runner with strong hands, very good deep speed and ball-tracking skills. Also has good burst out of cuts and is a strong, hard runner after the catch. Strong and physical; is not susceptible to bump-and-run and consistently wins jump balls. Elite player without any obvious weaknesses; is even a good blocker for a receiver. “You hope he misses the bus,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid joked. Sutton said he’s not sure Jones can even be stopped. “All he wants to do is win,” Sutton said. “He doesn’t care about touches ... but they know where 11 is, and if they’ve got to get something, usually he delivers.”
No. 97, DT Grady Jarrett, 23 years old, 6-0, 305, second season
Three-technique tackle who lacks ideal size but possesses a stocky frame. That, combined with his solid burst and playing strength, gives him the natural leverage to routinely win against interior offensive linemen when shooting gaps. Has racked up 33 tackles, six pressures and two sacks this season. Has good quickness off the snap and can build up speed while looping around on stunts. Has strong hands and an effective swim move. Plays hard and gives good effort. “Quick, fast-twitch guy — good, high motor,” co-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said.
No. 44, OLB Vic Beasley, Jr., 24 years old, 6-3, 246, second season
First-round pick in 2015 who has developed into a disruptive player; has racked up 30 tackles, 12 pressures and 9 1/2 sacks this season. Enjoys rushing from a wide-nine technique in passing situations, which allows him to isolate tackles in space and stress them with his impressive speed and burst. Is still developing as a run defender and leaves the game on some of the Falcons’ base defensive stuff. Is dangerous when looping inside on stunts; can shoot gaps with his superb quickness. Generally rushes against the right tackle but will align as a stand-up rusher on the interior. “He’s cat-quick, and he’s a ballhawk,” Nagy said.
Projected Chiefs two-deep
KEY: Bold=Player to Watch, C=Captain, AP=2015 All-Pro, PB=2015 Pro Bowl
No., Name, Ht., Wt., Years
11 Alex Smith (C), 6-4, 220, 11 | 4 Nick Foles, 6-6, 243, 5
32 Spencer Ware, 5-10, 229, 3 | 35 Charcandrick West, 5-10, 205, 3
42 Anthony Sherman, 5-10, 242, 6
17 Chris Conley, 6-3, 205, 2 | 12 Albert Wilson, 5-9, 200, 3
10 Tyreek Hill, 5-10, 185, R 8 | 12 Albert Wilson, 5-9, 200, 3
12 Albert Wilson, 5-9, 200, 3 | 13 De’Anthony Thomas, 5-8, 176, 3
87 Travis Kelce (PB), 6-5, 260, 4 | 84 Demetrius Harris, 6-7, 230, 3
72 Eric Fisher, 6-7, 315, 4 | 71 Mitchell Schwartz, 6-5, 320, 5
73 Zach Fulton, 6-5, 316, 3 | 75 Jah Reid, 6-7, 325, 6
61 Mitch Morse, 6-6, 305, 2 | 73 Zach Fulton, 6-5, 316, 3
76 Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, 6-5, 321, 3 | 75 Jah Reid, 6-7, 325, 6
71 Mitchell Schwartz, 6-5, 320, 5 | 75 Jah Reid, 6-7, 325, 6
99 Rakeem Nunez-Roches, 6-2, 307, 2 | 98 Kendall Reyes, 6-4, 300, 5
92 Dontari Poe, 6-3, 346, 5 | 77 T.J. Barnes, 6-7, 364, 3
95 Chris Jones, 6-6, 310, R | 94 Jarvis Jenkins, 6-4, 300, 6
50 Justin Houston (AP, PB), 6-3, 258, 6 | 51 Frank Zombo, 6-3, 254, 7
56 Derrick Johnson (AP, PB, C), 6-3, 242, 12 | 57 D.J. Alexander, 6-2, 233, 2
53 Ramik Wilson, 6-2, 237, 2 | 49 Daniel Sorensen (C), 6-2, 208, 3
91 Tamba Hali (PB), 6-3, 275, 11 | 51 Frank Zombo, 6-3, 254, 7
22 Marcus Peters (AP, PB), 6-0, 197, 2 | 27 Kenneth Acker, 6-0, 195, 3
38 Ron Parker, 6-0, 206, 6 | 21 Eric Murray, 5-11, 199, R
29 Eric Berry (AP, PB, C), 6-0, 212, 7 | 49 Daniel Sorensen, 6-2, 208, 3
23 Phillip Gaines, 6-0, 193, 3 | 24 D.J. White, 5-11, 193, R
20 Steven Nelson, 5-11, 194, 2 |27 Kenneth Acker, 6-0, 195, 3
5 Cairo Santos, 5-8, 160, 3
2 Dustin Colquitt (C), 6-3, 210, 12
13 De’Anthony Thomas, 5-9, 176, 3
10 Tyreek Hill, 5-10, 185, R
41 James Winchester, 6-3, 240, 2
Projected Falcons two-deep
KEY: Bold=Player to Watch, C=Captain, AP=2015 All-Pro, PB=2015 Pro Bowl, *=See “additional notes” section below for more info on player
No., Name, Ht., Wt., Years
**2 Matt Ryan (C), 6-4, 217, 9** | 8 Matt Schaub, 6-6, 245, 13
*24 Devonta Freeman (AP, PB), 5-8, 206, 3 | 26 Tevin Coleman, 6-1, 210, 2
32 Patrick DiMarco (AP, PB), 6-1, 234, 5
**11 Julio Jones (AP, PB, C), 6-3, 220, 6** | *16 Justin Hardy, 5-10, 192, 2
*18 Taylor Gabriel, 5-8, 167, 3 | 14 Eric Weems (C), 5-9, 195, 10
*12 Mohamed Sanu, Sr., 6-2, 210, 5 | 19 Aldrick Robinson, 5-10, 187, 4
*81 Austin Hooper, 6-4, 248, R | 80 Levine Toilolo, 6-8, 265, 4
*70 Jake Matthews, 6-5, 305, 3 | *76 Tom Compton, 6-5, 308, 4
67 Andy Levitre, 6-2, 303, 8 | *63 Ben Garland, 6-5, 308, 3
*51 Alex Mack (PB), 6-4, 311, 8 | *63 Ben Garland, 6-5, 308, 3
65 Chris Chester, 6-3, 303, 11 | 71 Wes Schweitzer, 6-5, 314, R
*73 Ryan Schraeder, 6-7, 300, 4 | *76 Tom Compton, 6-5, 308, 4
*50 Brooks Reed, 6-3, 254, 6 | 93 Dwight Freeney, 6-1, 268, 14
95 Jordan Babineaux (C), 6-2, 300, 12 | 98 Cliff Matthews, 6-4, 268, 5
**97 Grady Jarrett, 6-0, 305, 2** | *91 Courtney Upshaw, 6-2, 272, 5
*94 Tyson Jackson, 6-4, 296, 8 | 77 Ra’Shede Hageman, 6-6, 318, 3
**44 Vic Beasley, Jr., 6-3, 246, 2** | 41 Phillip Wheeler, 6-2, 245, 9
*45 Deion Jones, 6-1, 222, R | 53 LaRoy Reynolds, 6-1, 240, 4
*59 De’Vondre Campbell, 6-4, 232, R | 53 LaRoy Reynolds, 6-1, 240, 4
*23 Robert Alford, 5-10, 186, 4 | 29 C.J. Goodwin, 6-3, 190, 1
*22 Keanu Neal, 6-0, 211, R | 36 Kemal Ishmael, 6-0, 206, 4
37 Ricardo Allen, 5-9, 186, 2 | 27 Robenson Therezie, 5-9, 212, 2
34 Brian Poole, 5-10, 211, R
*32 Jalen Collins, 6-1, 203, 2 | 34 Brian Poole, 5-10, 211, R
3 Matt Bryant, 5-9, 203, 15
5 Matt Bosher, 6-0, 208, 6
14 Eric Weems (C), 5-9, 195, 10
14 Eric Weems (C), 5-9, 195, 10
47 Josh Harris, 6-1, 224, 5
Bonus notes on the Falcons
▪ The primary backs are a fantastic duo. Devonta Freeman is slippery and quick with a bit of power. He also has sure hands and route-running ability; he’s a really nice dual threat as a rusher and receiver who has racked up 38 broken tackles, eighth-most in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Freeman ranked No. 50 on the NFL’s Top 100 for 2016. Tevin Coleman missed three games with a hamstring injury before returning last week. He’s a bit bigger than Freeman, and is a one-cut, downhill back with good burst up the middle and a little more power. “The backs are real challenges in coverage, too,” Sutton said.
▪ Mohamed Sanu, Sr., is a possession receiver who can work the middle. His numbers aren’t outlandish — 47 catches, 495 yards, three touchdowns — and he isn’t a burner, but he has good ball skills and can shake you with his route running. He’ll also block you, too.
▪ Taylor Gabriel is the guy who scares you. He has explosive speed and is dangerous in space. He scored two touchdowns on run-after-the-catch screen passes last week. The Chiefs will need to swarm him and wrap him up when he has the football.
▪ This is a very good receiving corps. Even Justin Hardy, who made a remarkable jump-ball catch over star corner Patrick Peterson last week, can hurt you a bit.
▪ Starter Jacob Tamme is likely out for the rest of the season due to a shoulder injury, I really liked Austin Hooper coming out of Stanford. He’s going to be a good receiving tight end in this league.
▪ Jake Matthews, the sixth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, is starting to come on, particularly as a pass blocker, but right tackle Ryan Schraeder is the more well-rounded player at the moment. He’ll have to hold up against Justin Houston to give the Falcons a chance to win.
▪ Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, a free-agent signee, has predictably made a difference. He’s provided veteran leadership and stability at a position of need.
▪ The Chiefs might want to consider attacking right guard Chris Chester, who has struggled some this year as a pass- and run-blocker. Chris Jones will need to take advantage of that matchup.
▪ The Falcons will occasionally call on Tom Compton as a sixth offensive lineman in obvious running situations
▪ It’s hard to miss Brooks Reed; he’s the edge rusher with the long, stringy hair. He’s a try-hard guy who is coming off a good game; he generated a season-high four pressures and a sack against Arizona, according to Pro Football Focus.
▪ The Falcons like to play a lot of players up front in an effort to keep the interior fresh. Grady Jarrett is the best of the bunch, but the rest don’t really scare you. Former Chief Tyson Jackson is good at holding linemen to create lanes for stunts, Justin Smith-style.
▪ Deion Jones is a very good athlete who is a little light and is still learning to play the run better. The rookie has flashed in coverage, though.
▪ De’Vondre Campbell, another rookie, is also a terrific athlete who fares okay in coverage but is still learning to be stouter against the run. The Chiefs have to try these guys.
▪ Jalen Collins has filled in well for Trufant the last few weeks. For a big corner, he has good athleticism and is often in position to make a play on the ball.
▪ Robert Alford is a little grabby; he’s been flagged seven times this year. But he’s a good corner with athleticism and feistiness. He’s been targeted 61 time, fifth-most in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders.
▪ Safety Keanu Neal is a hitter with good athleticism; he looks to deliver the blow whenever possible. The rookie first-rounder is on the way to becoming a good player but can be thrown at in coverage.
Prediction: Falcons 30-24
The Falcons looked fresh last week coming off the bye, and the NFL’s top-scoring offense can really light it up. That, plus the Falcons’ middling defense, gives this the appearance of a potential shootout, and it’s still a tad optimistic to predict the Chiefs’ shaky offense in a game like this. But the Chiefs’ schedule the rest of the way is winnable, and this could be the game that ends up lifting them to a top-two finish in the AFC, which of course means a first-round bye. So I expect the Chiefs to call their best stuff, even if several key players sit because of injury, and have a real chance at winning.